The United States is ranked 44th out of 86 countries on income inequality. This is well below the ranks of other major countries in Europe such as Germany and France (Fisher, 2013). Income inequality in the United States has direct effects on areas such as education and public health, causing it to lag behind other major industrialized nations in these areas as well.
Math and Science scores of the US on the international stage fall well below leaders in Hong Kong and Singapore. However, this statistic is rooted in deep regional, racial, and most importantly socioeconomic issues (Zakaria, 2011). There is de facto segregation in the United States by neighborhood due to the disparity in income between social classes. Middle and upper class families often live in suburban neighborhoods quite separately from the poor and ethnically diverse families in urban areas. School and community resources differ by social class, and therefor differ also by race and ethnicity (Berliner, 2005). There is a major gap in resources provided to students in low socioeconomic neighborhoods compared to those with well-funded education systems. These resources range from textbooks to availability and modernity of science labs. In analyzing a 2003 PISA study on subject scores internationally, Berliner notes that if educational opportunities available to white students in our public schools were made available to all our students, the US would have been the 7th high scoring nation in mathematics, 2nd highest scoring nation in reading, and the 4th highest scoring nation in science (Berliner, 2005). Income inequality then creates a cycle where students, often people of color, receive sub par education and are unable to attain high paying jobs and fail to move up the socioeconomic ladder.
The affect of income inequality in education has major ties to health and the lack of affordable health care in the United States. Vision is a simple example. Two different vision screening tests, one among the urban poor in Boston and one among the urban poor in New York have found that 50% of the children tested had some easily correctable vision deficiency. Most of these cases were not followed up on or corrected and the lack of corrected vision has a major effect on educational performance. Another health issue affecting education in low socioeconomic neighborhoods is that of asthma. Families cannot afford to provide regular doctor visits for preventative care of asthma attacks. Since low-income families are more likely to live in urban areas with high air pollution, asthma is more present and students are forced to miss school. Hospital rates for asthma attacks are high in these areas and it puts a strain on the health care system (Berliner, 2005). Missing days of school would have a direct effect on the academic performance of these students. Not to mention, the strain on the health care system takes money away from communities that could be allotted to improving the education of that area.
Zakaria talks a lot about America’s competition with nations increasing in economic power. How would it be possible for the United States to compete for technologic advancements against nations far exceeding our student’s performance in math and science? Education has an enormous capability of maintaining our standings on the world stage by producing efficient and educated workers to succeed and participate in a globalized economy. It will be crucial for the future success of the United States to decrease the soaring rates of income inequality in order to positively impact education and health in the future.
(Edit: The Berliner article if anybody is interested. Some really interesting statistics.)